Special to the SUN
Eddie Esteban Vigil Jr., Chama’s first mayor, on Dec. 26 turned 100. It’s been 52 years since he held that position.
He now lives in Albuquerque with his daughter Linda, and his wife of 73 years, Luz Gallegos-Vigil.
His son Ernest Vigil, the youngest among 10 children, stood outside the Chama Chevron on a recent December day, and said, “My dad was the luckiest man in the world.”
Ernest sat in his vintage Full Moon trailer office as he recounted his father’s start.
Eddie’s luck started when the head nun at the Tierra Amarilla School sent him home and told him not to come back, “without a parent.”
“My father didn’t tell my grandparents the whole story,” Ernest said, smiling. “It was hay season and they were glad to have him home.
“But what was really lucky was my great uncle, a brother at the St. Michael’s School in Santa Fe, convinced my grandparents to send him south. A year later not only did St. Michael’s and my dad win the New Mexico State Basketball Championship but they went to Chicago and played in a national inter-catholic school basketball tournament.
“That education, the train to Chicago and back, I think, opened his eyes to life’s possibilities and that’s what gave him a great vision for Chama.”
His luck did not stop there, Ernest said.
Julian Romero’s Chama home in 1934 burned down. Eddie was told by his father, a sheep and cattle rancher from Ensenada, to herd five lambs down from Slip Rock and take them to the Romero family. Eddie did and Romero, not a poor man, thanked him and told him if there was ever anything he could do, to let him know.
Seven years later, a month after Pearl Harbor, Eddie joined the military. He served four years in the Navy then returned to Chama, went to Regis College in Denver and later got a job as a railroad telegrapher in Los Lunas, with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe RR Co.
He met Luz Gallegos there and 15 days later they wed, the beginning of a family that saw 10 children born over 12 years.
One day, as Eddie tapped morse-code at the railroad station cable booth, two girls stood patiently, awaiting his attention. According to Ernest, one of the sisters said, “We are Julian Romero’s daughters from Chama. You brought down the lambs. Our father died recently and he willed you first right of refusal to buy his liquor license.”
Ernest said that was how Eddie got his feet on the ground. The High-Country Restaurant, bar and package store took off with Eddie, Luz and family. By 1952 the High Country added a gas station.
A couple of years after that they acquired the Chevron distributorship and fuel oil bulk plant, supplying heating oil to the region. In 1962 they built the new Chevron on Highway 64/84 that Ernest operates today.
The family, including great-great grandchildren visit Eddie and Luz regularly. Their sons and daughters live all over the country, Eddie Esteban III in California, Mary Agnes in Arizona, Larkin in Santa Fe but mostly Albuquerque where Terri, Thomas, Michael, Joan, Joanna and Linda live. Ernest and his wife Sonia, are the lone Chama holdouts.
In the late 1950s Chama was in a state of crisis, Ernest said. Only two indoor toilets were in homes along the well-populated Terrace Avenue, while strings of outhouses and their associated cesspools had poisoned the domestic water wells.
Dysentery and typhoid fever were not uncommon. Health authorities placed warning signs in the village. One such sign read “Danger Unsafe Water – potable water at service station.” The only safe water well was directly behind Eddie’s Chevron.
At the time Chama was not incorporated and had no taxing authority to raise funds for a water system. Eddy and some local friends including Abe Gallegos, Ben Martinez, Abie Hollenbeck and John Miller tried to incorporate Chama. They surveyed a parcel from the Chama River to the Chamita and south, but the sawmills in town, the leading industry at the time, convinced their employees to vote no on incorporation and the proposition failed.
Several months later Eddie and his associates in 1960 brought incorporation before the voters again, this time with a re-survey that cut out the sawmills. The proposition won and Eddy became the first mayor of Chama.
The victory was short-lived as the sawmills won a re-match at the polls un-incorporating Chama. But within a year (1961-62), incorporation again won and Eddie was once again the mayor.
“My dad holds some sort of record serving the shortest term as mayor of a New Mexico town, and of being elected Mayor three times in less than a year,” said Ernest.
With power secured, Eddie led an explosive period for Chama. He had a water system built along with a wastewater treatment plant. Initially 200 households and businesses signed up to connect to the water systems. As demand grew Eddie negotiated Chama River water rights with the failing Denver and Rio Grande Railroad.
With much fervor to put Chama up front on New Mexico towns to visit. The city council and mayor expanded the new water system, laid more sewerlines, purchased more land, secured television service, and negotiated a natural gas pipeline from Dulce to Chama to heat the growing number of homes, despite the loss of revenue to Eddie’s heating oil supply business.
In the late 1960s the Bureau of Reclamation planned the San Juan River to Chama River diversion also known as the Azotea Project.
Approximately 120,000-acre feet of water was to be diverted from Colorado to New Mexico as part of the 1939 Rio Grande Compact between New Mexico, Colorado and Texas. The three-tunnel, 27-mile excavating project was to be coordinated by the Bureau of Reclamation at a soon to be built headquarters on a parcel of land Pagosa Springs had offered the government at market price.
Eddie contacted US Senators Joseph Montoya and Clinton Anderson and requested assistance to persuade the Bureau to choose Chama instead, which was closer to the worksite. Anderson told Eddie to get a piece of land and he’d handle the rest.
Chama resident Ed Sargent offered the land for free and within months the biggest economic boom Chama had ever seen ignited. Eight hundred workers for 10 years helped grow the town’s population to nearly 3,000. Today the region’s Bureau of Reclamation headquarters still resides in Chama.
In spring of 1968, Eddie decided to retire as mayor, giving rise to the country’s youngest mayor, present city councilwoman Jolene Jones’s father, Jardy Jones. He was 18. But Eddie still had Chama in his heart.
The Denver and Rio Grande Railroad’s last train to Alamosa departed Chama on a snowy December day in 1967. The narrow-gauge railroad had served the Durango-Chama-Alamosa route since 1880, hauling mail, passengers, coal, timber, precious metals, drilling pipe and everyday commodities. But truckers and new highways had changed the short routes and now the railroad executives awaited federal approval to abandon the line.
Ernest said his father thought it would at least make a great museum. The president of the railroad offered to sell it to the Village for one dollar.
Eddie and his brother Joe, along with T. Monahan, formed the “Save the Train” group. Ultimately U.S. Secretary of Interior Stewart Lee Udall supported saving the line between Antonito, Col. and Chama. Eddie worked with then New Mexico governor David Cargo and soon a joint venture between the state governments of New Mexico and Colorado saved the line that still runs tourists today between Chama and Antonito.
Eddie’s life, full with family and friends, was bestowed one of the highest honors by the New Mexico House of Representatives in 2001 by awarding him – “Man of the Century.”
Ernest, also a politician, serving as councilman, has visions for Chama.
“Opening up the river in town so people can actually fish is something I’d like to get done,” Ernest said. “And improve our streets. If I could even be half the politician my dad was, I’d know I was doing a good job for Chama.”